It was one of those November mornings when the heavens open like a cold shower at some below-par preparatory school and the day dawns grey and grim as one of Aunt Agatha’s frowns. Although a silver pot of the murkiest brew did its bit to lift the spirits of your special correspondent Bertram Wooster, my bleary eye then turned to the object beside the breakfast tray. A book, no less. The old heart sank a notch or two. It has a habit of doing that whenever the estimable Jeeves takes it on himself to educate his employer, who has never pretended to be the sharpest knife in the cutlery drawer.
Which weighty tome had the indispensable gentleman’s gentleman chosen to inflict on yours truly? Perchance a brain-scrambling chunk of Kant, Spinoza or some other pointy-headed Teuton of the kind Jeeves browses for a little light relief. But no: Jeeves and the Wedding Bells proclaimed a cover dressed up in a style that some chap in faded corduroys at the Slade would no doubt call “Art Deco”. Hey-ho, I thought. That amiable leech PG Wodehouse has been sucking our blood again to concoct another of those implausible tales in which Jeeves glides through every obstacle like a sleek pike in a pool. Then the plot thickened. The author’s name was “Sebastian Faulks”. I knew a Faulks at Malvern House. Rum cove: always writing stories. Had the infant scribbler returned to cash in on my literary fame?
Not before time, the oracle himself emerged to lighten our darkness.
“I say Jeeves, I thought that friend Wodehouse had a pretty tight grip on our adventures? The ‘franchise’ as our pals across the pond say. How did this Faulks fellow buy himself a slice of pie?”
That colossus of the buttling arts drew himself up to his full height. My job, I knew, was to maintain a positively golden silence as his words of wisdom wafted into the shell-like.
“Sir, perhaps I may venture a few remarks on the state of the publishing industry. Times are, it seems, hard. In such a climate the best-loved ‘brands’, as they say, shine with an ever-greater lustre. What finer ruse, then, than to invite the most esteemed authors of today to don the garb of their illustrious predecessors? Joanna Trollope has rewritten Miss Austen’s Sense & Sensibility for the age of what are called ‘social media’. William Boyd has penned a new escapade for Commander James Bond. Sophie Hannah, a writer of ‘psychological thrillers’ and erstwhile poet, has been authorised by the estate of Dame Agatha Christie to devise a new mystery for Monsieur Hercule Poirot.”
Early as the hour was, the conjunction of those dread words “psychological” and “Agatha” almost drove me out of the house to seek solace in a stiff one at the Drones. Yet the fount of all knowledge had not yet vouchsafed me with the “low-down” on Faulks. I did not have to wait for long.
“Most unfortunately, Mr Wodehouse is unavailable for further engagements. I understand that Mr Faulks has enjoyed considerable success as an author, not least with a most affecting novel about the Great War. Moreover, he has always expressed his admiration for those stories in which the routine exercise of my professional skills has found some small favour with the reading public.”
“Dash it, Jeeves. I didn’t always like the way that Wodehouse made me look about as bright as a mole in a mine. You have to hand it to the old buffer, though: he had my lingo down to a tee.”
“A most interesting observation, sir. Peruse Mr Faulks’s preface and you will note that he has wisely eschewed any attempt at exact impersonation. He avows that he ‘didn’t want to write too close an imitation of that distinctive music for fear of sounding flat or sharp’. He has, however, taken one liberty of which I fear you will not wholeheartedly approve.”
“Which is? Out with it, Jeeves. The tenterhooks are beginning to draw blood.”
“You are the servant, sir, and I am your master.”
“ -------------.” Words did not so much fail me as hang me out to dry in a January Force Nine.
“Mr Faulks imagines, I suspect, that many readers today felt less than comfortable with such a relationship as ours unless served up with a ‘democratic’ twist.”
“Bunkum and balderdash, Jeeves. Oofy Prosser, our resident plutocrat over at the Drones, tells me that a modest Mayfair abode such as this would now strain even the moolah-stuffed wallet of a Chicago meat-packing millionaire. ‘To him that hath’ etcetera.”
“I bow to your perspicacity, sir. It would appear that the Great British Public will happily tolerate extremes of inequality and privilege in life but likes to see them temporarily reversed in literature.”
“My sentiments entirely, Jeeves. And talking of service with a twist, surely the hour for a refreshing Green Swizzle must soon be nigh?”